Few things damage the national self-image, while at the same time generating impassioned defenses of the national good, like accusations of structural discrimination.
While racism, sexism and xenophobia at the individual level are often explained away as personal failures or “exceptions that prove the rule”, evidence of clear and sustained discrimination within public and private social institutions speak to a broader and deeper acceptance of bigotry. It cannot be waived away as some random bad apples spoiling the national barrel.
Over the past few weeks, the issue of structural discrimination in Sweden has been a topic of heated debate.
Two weeks ago, police officer Nadim Ghazale spoke at length on Swedish Radio about his professional experiences. In his talk, Ghazale recounted being asked by colleagues if, because of his immigrant background, he was a “quota hire”. In other words, he was hired simply to increase diversity. Ghazale noted that being an immigrant or a woman in the Swedish police meant having to work even harder to prove yourself to white, male colleagues. And, he continued, “if you are white, Swedish, straight and male – then you are already part of the quota. Congratulations, you got the simplest route.”
The proposal that white, straight, male Swedes have an easier time professionally was met with backlash. Conservative pundits and politicians, as well as large numbers of social media users, denied the existence of structural discrimination in Sweden. Every country has racists, they argued, but the suggestion that Sweden was, and is, anything other than a largely colour-blind meritocracy is simply incorrect. One politician from the Moderate Party even tweeted that it was “white, Swedish men” who had built the nation with their “blood and sweat”. He later deleted the tweet.
Only a few days after the national debate about Ghazale’s comments, Sweden’s Dagens Nyheter newspaper published an explosive story detailing widespread structural discrimination at public and private medical and dental offices throughout Sweden. After multiple cases of patients refusing to be treated by non-white staff had been exposed, the newspaper decided to do an investigation into how such requests were handled at the national level. For the piece, journalists called local medical offices posing as patients who had just moved into the area.
In the call, the “patients” said that they wanted to have “ethnic Swedish” doctors and dentists treating them. Disturbingly, in over half of the cases where there was diversity in the available staff, medical and dental offices went along with these clearly racist requests, promising callers that they could get “ethnic Swedish” or “light-skinned” professionals to treat them, or giving them advice on how to avoid staff who did not fit their demands.
As disturbing as they are, Ghazale’s personal experiences in the police and the Dagens Nyheter story are nothing new. Back in 2018, Swedish Television did a story about the racist treatment of staff at Swedish pharmacies, and how many of the managers either refused to condemn, or openly enabled, racist comments and requests from customers. Despite these repeated stories from staff members working across multiple industries, the denial at the national level about the extent to which structural discrimination exists is marked.
Most importantly, of course, these stories point to a broad acceptance of racism and discrimination that must be confronted openly. But, these stories also speak to other key issues so often discussed in Swedish politics and society: namely “quotas” and “integration”.
One of the most common criticisms levelled against efforts to bring more diversity into Swedish organisations and businesses via hiring practices is that such efforts go against the ideal of a society based solely on “merit.” That argument, however, is based on the myth that candidates with minority backgrounds are somehow less qualified than non-minority candidates. It is also based on the myth that the professional playing fields are equal for all employees, regardless of skin colour or ethnic background.
As the Dagens Nyheter story illustrated, staff members at medical offices were literally giving potential patients advice on how to avoid non-white doctors and dentists. Under these circumstances, it is naïve to think that the professional playing field is not tilted dramatically in favour of the white doctors and dentists in those offices. And, it is equally naïve to think that such practices do not exist in many other areas of Swedish professional life.
Over and over we hear the phrase “failed integration” in relation to immigrant communities in Sweden. In most cases, however, this failure is explained as the result of poor policy, poor effort on the part of immigrants or a combination of both. Again, the stories presented in this article point to a third, under-discussed factor impacting integration: discrimination. Even when immigrants to Sweden (or their children) are well-educated and eager to enter the workplace, they face discrimination solely on the basis of their name or appearance. This reinforces the idea that, no matter what these residents and citizens do, they will never be accepted as full, equal members of Swedish society.
As Sweden approaches elections in 2022, the issues of discrimination and integration will take more and more space in public debates. Integration, most often presented as one-way, is actually a two-way street. Until the issue of structural discrimination is addressed openly and honestly, however, such debates will remain at the superficial and self-serving levels.
Christian Christensen is a professor of journalism at Stockholm University in Sweden.